In the wake of an unexpected federal appeals court decision, a Texas federal judge on Wednesday eased the restrictions of the state’s onerous voter identification law for this year’s election.
But despite Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos’ acceptance of the compromise 2016 plan worked out by the state, the Justice Department and minority rights groups — and despite several other favorable decisions affecting Texas and other states — the battle against Republican efforts to tighten voting laws is hardly over.
In Texas, the 2016 plan will allow someone without a photo ID to vote by signing an affidavit that he or she is a U.S. citizen and presenting proof of residence, such as a paycheck, bank statement or utility bill. But it won’t keep state officials from pressing to preserve the 2011 law requiring photo ID, including appealing the 5th Circuit’s ruling against it to the Supreme Court.
And don’t underestimate the resilience of groups backing tighter voting curbs in the name of preventing largely non-existent voter fraud. Court decisions throwing out restrictive measures in North Carolina and Ohio are being challenged in an effort to limit their impact in those two battleground states.
At the same time, Republican nominee Donald Trump added a potentially explosive new issue in one of his typically inflammatory-but-uniformed statements, raising the prospect of an election “rigged” by widespread voter fraud.
In what many saw as a possible excuse if he loses in November, Trump told The Washington Post, “If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised.” He cited “the voter ID situation,” adding, “We may have people vote 10 times.” And on Tuesday, he praised the North Carolina voter ID law that courts have rejected.
Though he provided no evidence, Trump will soon be able to cite a forthcoming book by the president of the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, Tom Fitton, which alleges Justice Department efforts to block voting curbs could instead trigger widespread voter fraud.
This counter-attack comes as federal courts are showing increasing resistance to the post-2008 GOP-led effort to curb voting in the name of preventing fraud, despite the slim evidence that fraud is a serious problem.
In recent weeks, separate rulings by two appeals courts — the 5th Circuit dominated by conservative judges and the 4th Circuit controlled by liberals— rejected the strict voter ID laws passed by Texas and North Carolina, confounding expectations of contrary verdicts requiring a Supreme Court resolution.
That may yet happen, though the death of Justice Antonin Scalia has left the court split 4-4 on many issues and unable to provide much legal guidance.
But the Supreme Court split may change next year, presuming the next president wins Senate confirmation of a justice to fill the court’s vacant ninth seat. A Hillary Clinton nominee could provide a majority to overturn the 2008 decision legalizing state voter ID laws, a decision whose recent skeptics include the appeals court judge whose decision the high court upheld.
In the North Carolina case, a 4th Circuit panel ruled out both the state’s voter ID law and other restrictions that reduced early voting days and limited the kinds of documents voters could use to identify themselves. And it rejected an appeal by the state that would have prevented the decision from taking effect this year. On Monday, a GOP-controlled Board of Elections in Greensboro shelved a plan that would have made voting harder for college students and black residents.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, where a federal judge blocked the Republican Secretary of State’s efforts to shorten early voting time, Judicial Watch went to court to challenge the assertion that the limit would disproportionately burden African-Americans.
Elsewhere, federal judges have eased restrictions in voter ID laws in Wisconsin and North Dakota and blocked an effort to require evidence of citizenship for voting in Kansas. The Wisconsin judge said he would have thrown out the state’s law entirely, except for the 2008 Supreme Court decision.
It will take some time for these various cases to be resolved, both legislatively and in the courts. TexasGOP officials make clear they do not regard the matter as over.
But Richard Hasen, an expert on voting law and a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, expressed optimism in The New York Times: “We are nearing the end of an era of increasingly restrictive voting rules imposed just about exclusively by Republican legislators and election officials over the objections of Democrats and voting rights groups.”
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Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: [email protected]